Paul Swan: Two Fascinating Portraits

February 1, 2018 - August 1, 2018

Paul Swan (1884 – 1972) was once one of the most celebrated and eccentric artists of his time but has since been forgotten. Acclaimed as “America’s Leonardo” and dubbed “the most beautiful man in the world”, Swan based his artistic aspirations on Oscar Wilde’s dictum of art for art’s sake. His multi-faceted career included painting, sculpting, modeling, and dancing across several continents.

At age 15, Swan left his Midwestern farm upbringing for Chicago where he modeled for art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and began to study drawing, painting, and sculpture. Swan was primarily mentored by John H. Vanderpoel and Lorado Taft whose influences can be seen throughout Swan’s career. In 1911, Swan travelled to Europe stopping in Egypt and Greece. A critic for Patrie, an Athens magazine wrote, “no foreigner since Lord Byron has ever received such public acclaim” while another publication referred to him as “the reincarnation of one of our lost gods.” While in Europe, Swan studied under Danish painter Baron Arild Rosenkrantz, became the first private pupil of the famous dancer Mikhail Mordkin, and worked with Russian dancer Andreas Pavley. Swan believed that dancing helped his painting by experimenting and understanding the body’s movement.

Swan’s artwork travelled nearly as much as he did – he exhibited all across the world in cities including Athens, Buenos Aires, Chicago, London, New York City, Paris, and Rome.  In the late 1920s, Swan was shown at some of the most notable American galleries such as Anderson, Macbeth, and Knoedler. A review of his 1925 Anderson show wrote that Swan “used symbolism so that it enriches design instead of interfering with it.” This technique of incorporating symbolism can be seen in the portrait Young Boy with Pan. The painting depicts a boy in his teens or early 20s. He is seated in a relaxed position with slumping shoulders and his left arm resting on his thigh. The figure fills a majority of the frame crossing from the left to the right side with the angle of his legs. The face is shown in a traditional three-quarter view, harkening back to Swan’s preference for the traditional arts and avoidance of what he called “the new art.” There is a dark tone and atmosphere that is broken by an unseen light source that illuminates the boy’s face. His shins become nearly indistinguishable in the shadow of the foreground. The expression on the boy’s face is rather hard to read – he neither smiles nor frowns, his brow is neither stiff nor relaxed yet he maintains a willful eye contact with the viewer. In the background, a nude figure of Pan, the Greek God of the wild or nature, can be seen dancing and playing a pipe. The inclusion of Pan could be to symbolize the wild youth of the figure depicted, the fertility of puberty, or theatrical criticism and impromptus. Swan may have included Pan because of his own relationship to theatre, dance, and music. In the late 18th century, the Pan motif was revitalized by liberal scholars and by the  late 19th century, Pan had become a common figure in literature and art.

Throughout his career, Swan painted and sculpted some of the most recognizable figures from the 20th century included President Woodrow Wilson, Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald, Pope Paul VI, the children of Nelson Rockefeller, actor John Barrymore, British socialite Lady Ian Hamilton, and actress Nance O’Neil. In 1944, Swan painting Nance O’Neil as Lady MacBeth which is currently owned by The Players and located at the National Portrait Gallery. In 1950, Swan repainted Nance O’Neil as a life-sized portrait. O’Neil began her acting career during the silent film era and was one of few actors and actresses who were able to successfully transition to sound films. She is best known for her roles in Cimarron (1931), The Rogue Song (1930), and Kruetzer Sonata (1915). O’Neil was infamously a close friend of Lizzie Borden for several years, leaving many with questions regarding the sexual nature of the women’s relationship. The 1950 portrait of her can accurately be called more understated than the earlier depiction of her as Lady MacBeth. In the later work, Swan did not portray O’Neil in disguise as one of her many roles – instead he simplified the painting by setting her against a dark, almost unidentifiable background. She is centered on the canvas and showns eated, although the chair is hidden behind the layers of gown that cascade to the floor. Her arms elegantly cross on her lap as she loosely grasps an exotic bouquet of various flowers. Swan realistically rendered the details of her dress fabric, jewels, and flowers to enhance the artifice of the portrait. O’Neil’s face is again shown at a three-quarters view with the same unreadable expression of the young boy in the previous portrait. The crucial difference between the works, however, is Nance O’Neils far-off gaze searching for something unseen beyond the right edge of the canvas. It remains up to the viewer to decide if the portrait is more or less haunting with her lack of eye contact.

By the end of his career, Swan had become an eccentric character and was frequently visited by Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Roberto Matta, and Andy Warhol. In 1965, Warhol featured Paul Swan in several of his films including Camp, Paul Swan, and Paul Swan I-IV. Swan died in Bedford Hills, New York in 1972. His biography, The Most Beautiful Man in the World: Paul Swan, from Wilde to Warhol, printed by the University of Nebraska Press in 2006 was nominated for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize.

View both portraits by Paul Swan at Kiechel Fine Art currently hanging in the second floor gallery.